Robin Blake’s A Dark Anatomy

Robin Blake’s A Dark Anatomy combines the best of mystery and historical fiction. In the first of what is projected to be a trilogy, detectives Cragg and Fidelis team up to solve a vicious murder. Blake’s multi-faceted experience and background shaped his skilled historical mystery writing. He read English at Jesus College, Cambridge and received a postgraduate diploma in Social and Cultural Studies at London University. Nonfiction writer, novelist, teacher, journalist, broadcaster, documentary creator, book reviewer, biographer, radio script creator, and art critic, Robin Blake can now add historical mystery writer to his resume. No stranger to historical research, he has written biographies on 16th century artist Anthony Van Dyck and 18th century painter George Stubbs.

Blake’s Irish ancestors moved to Lancashire in the 1830s, and Blake himself grew up in Preston, Lancashire – the setting of A Dark Anatomy. (For additional information on his life and works, see his official website.) In his “Historical Note” to the novel, Blake observes that 18th century Preston was the prime social and legal centre of Lancashire, remaining unchanged “until the end of the century when industrialization transformed the town into the grimy, overcrowded manufactury that Charles Dickens called Coketown, his setting for Hard Times” (359).

A Dark Anatomy opens in 1740 with news of the violent death of Squire Brockletower’s wife. Dolores Brockletower is found murdered in the forest near her manor home, her throat slashed from ear to ear. Neighbours believe that Dolores deserved her fate, since they think she was either a werewolf or consort of the devil. It is the job of Titus Cragg, lawyer and Preston’s Coroner, to arrange an inquest into her death. He invites the brilliant young Dr. Luke Fidelis to perform the autopsy and help solve the case. But before he can proceed, the body is stolen. Then a second murder is committed, complicating the investigation.

The Squire first met Dolores Brockletower at a ball in Jamaica. The daughter of wealthy sugar-planters from the West Indies, Dolores was never understood or accepted by her English neighbours. Cragg tells the reader that she “was not a reputable person to the people in this part of the County Patatine. A ‘stranger,’ Pennyfold had said. But she was also ‘singular,’ ‘not natural,’ and ‘colonial born’. And she had ‘secrets’” (124). The eighteenth-century villagers believed in supernatural rather than natural causes of Dolores’s death.

If you ever wondered what it was like to live in Georgian England, you will find a convincing portrait of the age in A Dark Anatomy. Robin Blake takes the job of historical novelist seriously, framing the mystery within a meticulously researched world. “The fun of historical fiction,” he points out,
is that it draws the reader into a strange, lost time, though it is a time that contains the seeds of our own. No one can really know, let alone recreate, the past. But using all the information to be gleaned from contemporary sources, and standing on the shoulders of later historians, I have been very concerned to make my view of life in Preston in the 1740s a credible one. The secret, I have found, is to remember that human nature is constant.
What the novel conveys particularly well is the rather primitive state of detection, policing, and forensic science during the period. The novel is indeed “a fascinating examination of how crimes could have been solved before the nineteenth century gave us the rudiments of forensic science” (Fletcher 2011). Cragg the coroner is aware that a police force is developing across the continent:
I have read, a department of government exists – the Police – which concerns itself with all manner of crime, both discovering it and suppressing it. If we had such a police office in Preston, I dare say law and order would be more rigorously enforced than it ever can be by our magistrates and bailiff, who are more interested in making money than keeping the peace. (119)
As first-person narrator, Cragg is a superb choice. John O’Connell observes, that he is “an elegant, urbane narrator with a knack for making even minor characters come alive.” Cragg’s sound judgment and common sense provide a reliable window into the world. This solid character is an effective foil to the young and brilliant Luke Fidelis – a Watson, in many ways, to the Holmes-like doctor.

Cragg, the well-read intellectual detective, has his roots in Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse. Blake admits that Dexter probably influenced him more than he realizes.

Fletcher (2011) calls A Dark Anatomy “a solid winner; and Sutherland (2011), “a crisply written classic novel [which] offers all the pleasures of a classic detective novel and introduces the reader to an appealing new historical sleuth.” Few mystery novelists have tackled the eighteenth century; interestingly Tessa Harris’s The Anatomist’s Apprentice (see my blog) is the first novel in another new series set in the same era and focusing on early forensic science. Both novels have set the bar high for other 18th-century mystery writers.

Blake, Robin. A Dark Anatomy. New York: Minotaur Books, 2011.

Fletcher, Connie. “A Dark Anatomy.” Booklist 108, no. 15 (2011).

Sutherland, Kathryn. “Spies, Rebels, Vampires, Witches: The Lure of Historical Fiction.” Times Literary Supplement. April 22, 2011.